Since Reunification in 1991, Germany has intermittently and ambivalently contemplated a more significant leadership role in international politics, including the Atlantic Alliance. The central question here is where relations with the United States are headed. For the past 30 years, German leaders have chosen to leave this question for a more convenient time.
During the Balkan wars, Germany was attracted to the humanitarian aspects of intervention but not to the military burdens that came with separating the combatants. In the event Berlin ended up cheerleading for American forces and waiting for the European Union to take charge of putting the Western Balkans back together. During the subsequent debate on NATO expansion, Germany liked America’s interest in Eastern Europe better than the alternative, but worried privately about how Russia would react. In 2000, Germany decided to leave the credit for creating a New Europe to the United States and dutifully took up the thankless job of integrating new members into European institutions.
Very little changed over the years in Germany’s handmaiden relationship with American power until 2003, when Germany discovered its own interests during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Indeed, the German Chancellor at the time led the opposition, questioning both America’s obsession with out-of-area operations and the evangelical fervor that Washington brought to the mission of creating democracies. At the next major shock to the international system, the Great Recession of 2008, the uneasy consensus in German policy for “leadership from the second row” crumbled.
From the Greek financial crisis to the wars in Georgia and Ukraine—and culminating in the mass migrations from Syria and Sub-Saharan Africa—U.S. and German interests began to diverge rapidly. The overall financial instability of Southern Europe and the mass migrations across the Mediterranean Sea were of no concern to Barack Obama. As the American President was declining to intervene in crises of great importance to Germany and Europe, the United States as a whole was blaming Europe for not doing its “share” to bear the burden of what were largely self-appointed American missions around the world. By 2014, well before the election of Donald Trump, the European and especially German acceptance of a paternalistic America had disappeared. This was the year German President Joachim Gauck asked the Munich Security Conference when Germany would finally begin to lead, though Germany was far behind in its thinking about these new and unfamiliar circumstances.
The first two years of the Trump Administration ended up clarifying the situation for Berlin. There was no relationship between Germany and the United States other than a negative and adversarial one. Germany’s historic, often romantic, relationship with American leadership is dead. Unlike Angela Merkel, who nursed along the fading relationship with the United States and the diverging of allied interests for years, the next generation of German leaders will have to manage a relationship with Washington characterized by sharply opposing interests to defend.
With America in profound political and moral turmoil, and with its ability to continue to lead the West in grave doubt, there is no longer a question about German leadership. There is only the imperative to do something.
The problem of Germany today can be summarized as a combination of America’s abdication of credible and responsible leadership and the pathological reticence this loss has revealed in the national security policies of Germany. As a senior State Department official explained last year to his colleague from the German Foreign Ministry, Berlin should stop worrying about President Trump’s reactions and make decisions based on German national interests. This is excellent advice, and at the same time stunning that the nation that educated Clausewitz has to be reminded to follow its own interests and let the chips fall where they may.
Closely related to the reluctance of German leaders to define their country’s interests is their psychological tendency to dismiss disagreements with the Trump Administration as both weird at the personal level and unserious as a matter of policy. This tendency grossly understates the seriousness of the differences between the two countries and the barriers they create for future Atlantic relations. Take, for instance, Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mitchell’s October 18 remarks to the Atlantic Council on the future of Europe:
For too long many in the West have touted international institutions without acknowledging that they derive their authority and influence from the nation state. . . . The West must reclaim the tradition of supporting the nation state as its own and work harder to ensure that international institutions reflect the democratic will of nations or expect institutions to lose influence and relevance.
No one is guiltier of touting international institutions like the European Union than Angela Merkel, and Germany as a whole. In fact, for the past 70 years, the European Union has built a community based on shared sovereignty between nation states, on restraining populist passions, and limiting the nation state. In Mitchell’s view, the United States should champion states like Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine, wherein the pursuit of national sovereignty is an end in itself. It is the policy of the United States that the normative influence of the European Union is denying these primitive throwback states the breathing space they demand and, therefore, this influence should be reduced.
It is difficult to imagine a more profound difference of political values than that which separates America—the champion of muscular, even ruthless, nation states—and Germany—a founding member of the European Union. In effect, Washington is insisting that Europeans abandon not only large parts of their history but also the most ambitious multilateral project of our time, in favor of a handful of illiberal democracies absorbed with their past.
Meaningful differences exist not only at the level of political philosophy, but also at the practical level of national security and statecraft. For centuries the North German plain has been the autobahn of invasion in any direction. Relations between Germany and Russia arguably remain the most consequential of Europe’s enduring bilateral enmities. Even though recent German Chancellors have been reluctant to speak in terms of national interests, no one can doubt that Russian pipelines, Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine, and the economic and political disorder of post-Soviet states are serious threats to modern Germany. Why then has German foreign policy failed to modify or contain Russian behavior, end the war in Eastern Ukraine, or provide for the energy security of Germany and Northern Europe?
In a nutshell, it has failed to do these things because Berlin has bizarrely agreed to a diplomatic structure that represses the legitimate pursuit of national interest. The format for negotiating an end to the Russian-Ukrainian war is evenly split between the would-be peacemakers Germany and France, and the two belligerents. Effectively, this awards Putin a veto and rewards Poroshenko for his self-promoting nationalism. A separate process has developed involving a bilateral exchange between mid-level U.S. and Russian officials who rarely if ever actually meet. The three initiatives in 2018 that emerged from telephone conversations between Putin and Merkel (the deployment of UN peacekeepers, Ukraine gas transit after 2019, and direct negotiations on peace for pipelines) were killed by a distrustful State Department and its client in Kyiv. The structure of peace talks on the war in Eastern Ukraine seems designed both to fail and to preclude the diplomacy of France and Germany from developing the political foundations for post-war Ukraine and a plan for the reconstruction of the war-torn region. As was the case in the Balkans in the 1990s, Europe’s interests in the Russian-Ukrainian war lie in the withdrawal of foreign military forces, meaning Russia, and in limiting the post-war influence of outside powers, including the United States.
At heart, what is a stake between the United States and Germany in Eastern Europe is not a dispute about pipelines or negotiating tactics; it is an argument over first principles. The United States believes, to quote Mitchell, that “the return of great power competition is the defining geopolitical fact of our time,” and therefore the road to peace in Ukraine leads through crippling economic sanctions, arms sales, and, ultimately, regime change in Moscow. The German view is much different. The alternative peace leads through negotiations to Kyiv, constitutional reform, and the reconstruction of Eastern Ukraine.
In the German approach, international peacekeepers are more useful than arms sales. Protecting minority rights under the Helsinki Final Act is a more reliable strategy than building up sovereignty by displacing language, religion, and populations. Dividing gas transit between Germany and Ukraine might even be a better way of creating economic interdependence than disrupting trade flows throughout the post-Soviet world.
The point here is not whether Berlin or Washington have cracked the code to containing Russian aggression. Neither has corralled Moscow. Neither has brought peace to Ukraine. The point is that these are very different worldviews. The State Department sees Europe’s eastern flank as a no-holds-barred great-power competition. And Berlin sees Russian aggression and the humanitarian tragedy in Ukraine through the lens of European history since 1945. The difference of values implied by these visions matters greatly.
Finally, there is a serious divergence between the United States and Germany on the appropriate relationship between the economy and the interests of the state. Angela Merkel, like most Germans, has a largely benign view of economic activity. Growth is good, diminishing inequality within the population and integrating new members. Trade, particularly exports, is wonderful in distributing comparative advantages around the world. Prosperity is its own reward in modern Germany, and trade relations are not intended to achieve the objectives of the German state. One could imagine that, in the not too distant future, Germany might even return to the project of building vast, trans-oceanic free trade zones around in the world.
Not so in Washington in 2019. There are walls to be built. Economic activity, to again quote Mitchell, draws its “foundational importance from the American nation state and national sovereignty as one of the key sources, along with natural law, from which political legitimacy ultimately derives.”
Setting aside for a moment the odd part about natural law, this is a militant and fundamentally illiberal declaration of mercantilist principles. As Mitchell confirms, “To a much greater extent than in the recent past, the United States must treat the promotion of U.S. business as inextricably linked to the future of our nation’s strength and influence abroad.”
There are two sides to the dysfunctional Atlantic Alliance: Donald Trump’s America, which has selfishly substituted aggressive mercantilism and exploitative diplomacy for international order; and a fretful Germany, which is oscillating wildly between confusion and denial. It is the interaction between America’s abandonment of altruism in favor of crude economic bullying and Germany’s tendency to apologize and ingratiate that threatens Euro-Atlantic order. If Europe wants to survive as a community, its leaders must first realize that these are not trivial disagreements. If Assistant Secretary Mitchell is to be believed, the United States will try even harder to ensure that Europe does not succeed in taking its destiny into its own hands.
Unlike most EU member states, Germany has rarely viewed its leadership positions in the European Commission as a means for defending German interests. To date, Germany has done far more to realize the vision of Schumann and Monet than the Brussels bureaucracy has done in practical terms for Germany. Without effective coordination with the European Union, it is not surprising that the level of German defense spending is set during American Presidential campaigns. German exports of aluminum are regulated by the U.S. Trade Representative, and exports to Iran are within the purview of the Treasury Department. Tariffs on Daimler, BMW, and Volkswagen are subject to the whim of White House economic advisers. Germany’s energy policy is directed by threats from both the State Department and the Secretary of Energy. The only major aspect of Germany economic decision-making that is not a target of U.S. interference is climate change policy. And this has been a moot point since 2017, when President Trump withdrew the United States completely from the Paris climate agreement.
In this new world of mercantilism, protectionism, and unilateral diktat, German industry is defenseless. From the heady days of 2014-16, when the largest free trade deal in history between the United States and Europe was within sight, to the trade wars and coercive economic practices of the present, the descent has been profound and more than a little frightening. Here again, Germany has not reacted effectively to the changed circumstances and has thereby hastened its own financial decline.
As the largest economy in the European Union, Germany should at a minimum take steps to secure the position of Competition Commissioner and support the creation of a European Commission willing to defend the integrity of European industry and markets. Moreover, the U.S. Congress is now playing a significant role in legitimizing mercantilist practices by passing legislation to pressure EU members. For example, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) explicitly threatens European companies with criminal penalties. If one believes that there should be no taxation, sanctions, or criminal penalties imposed on EU citizens without representation, European political parties need to organize defensive blocs in both the Bundestag and the European Parliament. The purpose of these blocs should be to defend a balanced trading system between the United States and European Union, to void extraterritorial legislation damaging to the European economy, to prohibit coercive practices, and, if appropriate, to retaliate against unfair trading practices and meddling in EU internal affairs.
As 2019 opened, both political parties in the United States responded to Trump’s reckless decision to announce a withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan by adopting Jim Mattis as a contrasting symbol of rectitude and honor. Such theatrics are certainly easier to pull off than it is to explain to voters that their President (and Congress) have treated their European allies shabbily. Paeans to august personalities are no response to Russian aggression in Europe’s East, or to U.S. withdrawal from NATO’s out-of-area mission. Germany’s silence has enabled the Washington’s compromised political elite to get away with run-of-the-mill jingoism, a pointless Government shutdown, and the preposterous claim that immigrants are a far greater threat to Western civilization than the violent aggression of ISIS, the Taliban, and Iran. These falsehoods should have been challenged more directly by German leaders.
Certainly isolationism and the duplicitous character of President Trump pose serious threats to American democracy, but Germany’s inability to recognize and explain the greater threat that American conduct poses to the political cohesion and defensive capability of NATO is far more serious. Having solicited America’s NATO allies to join multiple Washington-led alliances of the willing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Greater Middle East, the United States cannot now withdraw abruptly, without warning or consultation. Words such as cowardice, betrayal, and desertion exist to describe such conduct on the battlefield, but they have not been heard clearly from anyone in Europe, particularly in Germany.
The conceptual problem here is that conservative German leaders give the impression that ingratiation and flattery are the price to be paid for keeping Donald Trump in a multilateral alliance. This is a very bad idea. Military alliances, like good marriages, are maintained and strengthened by a readiness to rebel at the first sign of the undermining of the moral values that serve as the foundation for these institutions. The absence of indignation in Berlin at the behavior of President Trump is a sign that the process of national decathexis, (in this context, the withdrawal of a political and emotional investment) is well advanced in Germany. The fragmentation of NATO cannot be far behind.
An asymmetric relationship has developed between the State Department and the German Foreign Ministry that bodes ill for sustaining a friendship between equals. In Washington, German diplomats are overly polite, often retiring, and usually ignored. In the classical tradition, the German Embassy celebrates the political and cultural achievements of Germany: brilliant automotive engineering, masterful football teams, the architectural and social triumphs of German Reunification, and pilsner beer.
By contrast, American diplomats in Berlin are stunningly rude and aggressively lobby against the business interests of their hosts, against the government, and against the foreign policies of elected German officials. The State Department is in Berlin to oppose, to disrupt, and often to undermine. The U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell has sided with Kaczynski against Germany, attacked German immigration policy, threatened German companies with U.S. sanctions, and held himself out as a virtual proconsul for U.S. extraterritorial overreach. It is hardly a secret that the European Bureau of the State Department is no ally of Germany.
There are two discrete problems in the current Atlantic relationship. There is the moral hazard of inequality in the application of treaties and the economic danger in deteriorating trade relations between the United States and European Union. In addition to the unethical connotations of subordinate or second-class states, unequal relations are unstable and pose a danger to an international system of order based on laws being equally applied. No one benefits in a relationship where only one side can do the shouting, the bullying, and the sanctioning. This same point applies to diplomatic manners and protocol. Unsurprisingly, Germany is the country where Trump Administration officials have deliberately behaved most poorly since 2016.
Uniquely, Germany is the only economically successful advanced democracy with little to say about its reasons for being so, or where its destiny lies. In sharp contrast to the interminable self-promotion and deceptions of Donald Trump, Germany is virtually mute in a world of constant conversation. Whether this is due to the reserved personality of Angela Merkel or a standoffish domestic political temperament is irrelevant. Great nations at the beginning of the 21st century shouldn’t be ashamed to place the pursuit of their economic and geopolitical interests within the frame of their larger humanitarian, environmental, and political goals. A well-developed explanation of national purpose and shared political values is a necessity of statecraft. Sadly, perhaps due to the hesitancy with which Germans are conditioned to view modernity, the stories of German purpose and leadership are missing.
The above recommendations are intended to suggest how German leadership might reverse the deterioration of Western wealth and politics caused by the derangement of America’s moral compass and the deterioration of its capacity for leadership. The basic premise is that the adoption of more disciplined and self-interested policies on the part of Chancellor Merkel’s coalition government and its successor would serve to rebalance the Euro-Atlantic alliance and its system of trade. I’ve attempted here to draw on a tradition of conservative sensibility common to Germany and America that is liberal in its intentions if not in its theory.
A conservative sensibility suggests that Germany could lead more effectively if it were respected rather than merely liked, just as it would claim that the United States could more easily recover its former status if it were respected rather than disliked and feared. More to the point, Germany’s leaders should not accept unequal or one-sided relationships as the norm in international politics. These relationships are fundamentally destabilizing and undermine the principle of fairness on which the NATO alliance and Euro-Atlantic system of free trade rely.
If in the past Europeans hated the command economies of the communist world, today they should enthusiastically oppose the bullying economic policies of the Trump Administration, which also distort economies, coerce free enterprise, and seek unfair advantage in trade wars.
Finally, it is a fundamental principle of realism that geography, history, and cultural proximity convey a seniority of interest to the nation that lies closest to international disorder in terms of shared values, common history, experience, and military and economic risks. Therefore, it is absurd that relations with Russia, peace in Eastern Ukraine, and the energy security of Europe are decided in distant Washington and not by Berlin, Paris, and Brussels.
It is a grave mistake to think that Germany does not have a role in enforcing appropriate behavior in diplomacy and ensuring that even Germany’s longtime allies do not overstep.